MWD General Manager Adel Hagekhalil on Rewriting SoCal’s Water Management Playbook

Adel Hagekhalil

With California in the midst the worst megadrought experienced in 1,200 years, the state has significantly less water from snowpack and drastically reduced allocations for  Southern California from the State Water Project. In response, Metropolitan Water District and the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power announced mandatory cutbacks come June 1, VX News interviews General Manager Adel Hagekhalil who discusses the necessity of developing new tools and innovation for enhancing local water supply and management strategies adaptable to worsening conditions wrought by the climate crisis. To meet this challenge, the GM emphasizes the holistic  One Water approach to watershed management and the tantamount importance of embracing and incentivizing investments in resilience.

Adel, it's been a year since you were chosen to be the general manager of Metropolitan Water District. Let’s begin with some recent quotes from both the BBC and AP: “Mega drought in Southwest US Worst in a Millennium and “Expanding drought fueled by climate change leaves western US scrambling for water.” As the GM of the largest wholesale water agency in North America, how is the Agency responding to this new normal?

What we need to do, as water agencies, is respond and adapt to the changing conditions that we have. A changing climate is here. The old ways of how we managed our water systems over last century are not going to carry us for next 100 years. As water managers, we need to rewrite the playbooks to address how we're going to manage and provide water for our communities into the future.

To me, the old playbook that we relied on for a long time is that snow comes in the winter and as it melts, refills our reservoirs and lakes to be used during summer and in dry times. Then, the cycle repeats itself every year. That model has been upended and doesn't exist anymore. Climate change is dramatically affecting the first step: our snowpack.

We have a shrinking water pie that we're all fighting over. What we need to do is make the pie bigger. That's done through conservation, protecting our groundwater basins, and replenishing our groundwater basins through storage and local water supply that we can create through capture of stormwater and recycling of water. These things are our solutions for the future.

Those are the new chapters in our playbook that we need to continue working through. We need to control the future with innovation, new approaches to water management and a One Water philosophy.

 I'm committed to that. That's the vision I have for our future here in Southern California. It’s also a statewide issue and a Southwest issue. This is a wake-up call for all of us. I'm up to the challenge, and we're underway to frame the future for the next 100 years.

You've been known throughout your career for both your managerial leadership and for bringing those working for and with you together. The constellation of water interests in California is disparate and typically contentious; have you made progress in aligning these interests?

I believe strongly in this concept that everybody should be under the tent. We need to make the tent as big as it needs to be to make sure everybody is included, and nobody is left behind. If people are left outside when you're making important decisions, they're going to bang on the door, and may be strongly opposed to what you have agreed to. Whether you are living in the desert, in Arizona or Nevada, one of the environmental advocates in the Bay Delta, one of the tribes that are both on the Colorado or in the Bay Delta, or you support Met or not, I am reaching out to you and inviting you to work with us.

A few weeks ago, I had a tour with Restore the Delta. The team there took me around Stockton and the Delta area. I met with the tribes. I'm working closely with them and our other environmental partners. I’ve also had a number of listening sessions with the environmental community to listen to the issues.

Fundamentally, I think we are all looking for the same outcomes. Nobody can disagree we need a resilient water future. We need a balanced and holistic future of water management. We need to create a balance between the environment, our farming and industry, and our urban communities. Sometimes we're just talking past each other.

I'm glad that it’s part of the budget for Metropolitan to support the acceleration of our Recycled Water Program in Carson, to build one of the largest water recycling facilities in the nation. We have a broad coalition of support from business communities, the chambers, the labor community, NGOs, and environmental advocates. Everybody is behind this. That's because we're telling everyone to come together to create the future. 

Right now, our board is having discussions about the way to manage the water around the Delta, the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River and also talk about our future voluntary agreements with the state and others. We invited stakeholders to come speak, sitting at the table, providing their perspective to the board. If we collaborate, we all can benefit from sharing our ideas. That concept is critical and I'm working hard to build the trust to open the doors and bring everybody in. I've reached out to many water agencies up and down California and along the Colorado River. We're all working together to ensure that we're all heading in the right direction without leaving anyone behind.

We recently had a presentation that included an educational session with all the Congressional representatives from the Southwest states. Our success depends on telling this story to really get them engaged.

This is not just about piping water from one place to the next. It's about uplifting communities to take care of it, and we can't do it alone. Investments in water projects can create new jobs and this has long-lasting benefits for all of our communities.

I'm glad there's support from Governor Newsom, the Assembly and the State Senate, as well as the federal government to help get us money for recycled water and better conservation programs.

I've been at Metropolitan less than a year, but we're moving in the right direction. I can see that we're all working together. Trust is critical because we can only go as fast as the spirit of trust. That's something that we should all believe in, and I'm moving as fast as I can to bring people on board with me so we can go even faster.

The MWD Board vote to select you as General Manager included support from both San Diego and LA. What does aligned support from previously antagonistic water agencies portend for your leadership going forward?

I appreciate the support from Los Angeles, San Diego, and everybody that voted for me. As I said from day one, I'm the General Manager for all 26 member agencies and I’ve worked hard to bring them all together. I can't do my job if I have a divided board or if we're not all behind the same goals.

I believe that I have moved the needle with the support of the board members to start working together in having productive, healthy debate over the issues. I've reached out personally to every board member and every agency. I believe I have gained their trust and support. My interest is to serve all of Metropolitan. I believe that if anybody is left behind, we're not doing our job.

That being said, we have very diverse interests with Metropolitan. We have very different places when it comes to water supply. Some people are more dependent on groundwater. Some rely on a mixture of groundwater and imported supplies. Some people already have recycled water, like in Orange County. We have communities here that are dependent on the State Water Project that right now are suffering because of the lowest allocation of these water supplies that we've had in our history.

The key word that we have to all be embracing is resilience. Resiliency is how can we ensure that everyone has access to clean and reliable supplies of water. I'm doing a lot of work in terms of framing the future. The business model for Metropolitan that served us over the last 100 years is not going to carry us forward. Both in terms of infrastructure investments and how we pay for these investments, so looking with a critical eye to these things has to be on the table.

I'm honored that I am able to be leading Metropolitan into its second century, to ensure that the issues of every member agency are addressed, and to work to provide solutions that can uplift them and provide greater resiliency.

One Water is long been your mantra for new investment in water infrastructure. How has the latter guided your vision for transitioning MWD to a meet the challenge of severe drought.

It's a holistic model. One Water is a watershed concept that's basically a puzzle you're trying to put together. We have a demand for water because water is everything for us. For us to grow, we need to figure out how we manage that water. One component is reducing consumption with new conservation initiatives and fixing infrastructure such as leaky pipes. Also, how can we use our groundwater in a healthy way? How can we protect importation of water and store water, but also do it responsibly? When we have water, we need to be able to store it. When we don't have it, we can move it to where it’s needed.

The real paradigm shift is recycled water. It's about connecting the dots and drops. It's about how we can make sure that water is available. You can move it around multiple sources. If one is strained, there is another source.

With One Water, you don't ignore the environment, the people you're serving, or climate conditions. You don't ignore a source of water. All of that is included and are the components of that puzzle we have to build. I am surprised that parts of our region here are still dependent on one source of water. We all know that we should be ready and resilient, and I'm not going to leave anyone behind.

One Water also integrates jobs and community uplifting. I'm working on a number of programs for workforce development. The board just authorized me to negotiate a project labor agreement for future projects, because we believe in uplifting communities. We're building what will be the nation’s largest recycled water project in Carson. We want to build a community training program around it that will create 50,000 jobs. Water investment is not just purely water for drinking and businesses. It's about creating a better place to live. One Water is the umbrella that brings everything together and makes sure that we are being resilient without leaving anyone behind on any issue.

Substantial federal—and potentially state and local—dollars have been and are being allocated for water infrastructure in the coming years. Is enough being allocated? What is needed; and, how is MWD planning to invest these public funds?

Metropolitan has done well in the past investing across the region. At the end of the day, who pays for it? It's the ratepayers. We're getting to a place right now where we're seeing, as we are investing more in conservation and local water supply, . our revenue that's tied to our traditional water sales is going down while our cost is going up. There's something that needs to be worked on in the business model.

In the meantime, we need to jumpstart the investments in local water supply. I have an ask right now pending before the state for $500 million to jumpstart the recycled water program to get us to a place where we can accelerate this project. Metropolitan has a bill in Sacramento to allow Metropolitan to use a progressive design alternative delivery for drought emergency projects and the recycled water program. We need new tools to move us forward.

In dealing with climate change and the drought, we need to show that the state is committed to the future of water for this region. It's not about continuing to fight over the same amount of water. What we need is big, bold investment into storage, local and regional recycling, and local water supply. I am asking for this investment in us to accelerate this project. We can't wait. The drought is not waiting for us and we should move quickly.

In the meantime, we've worked with Congress and the federal government on creating new funding for large recycled water projects. That's in the infrastructure bill that was recently passed. We are working on how to get the money out and that's taking a little time. At the end of the day, we've got to pay for it. We will do the necessary financing here to pay for it. I want to make sure it's not on the backs of one part of our community. We need to be fair and equitable. The affordability question is very hard. We need to figure out how we can work with the state and the federal government to ensure communities that cannot afford water aren’t suffering because of the higher costs of delivering and creating water.

In addition to the above investment priorities, how is MWD approaching the challenges wrought by PFAS and microplastics?

We have some of the best scientists and best water quality labs in the world. I’m very proud of the work that we do. We have a bill right now in the Senate with Senator Portantino working on creating a system in place to work with the State Board to find a way to be ahead of the game in finding these contaminants. For people that don’t know, PFAS comes from fire retardants, Teflon, and other things that stay in the environment. It's impacted a lot of our water systems and is really showing up in groundwater wells.

We have a partnership across the world regarding microplastics and we have some of the best science that ensures we have the safest water in the world. We know there's emerging contaminants and we need to be ahead of the game.

We began voluntarily testing for for PFAS nearly a decade ago.

Last year, we found extremely low levels of a PFAS chemical called PFHxA, which is not acutely toxic and is not regulated in California, as we have in several previous years. Last year we also used a new very sensitive method that allowed us to detect three other PFAS chemicals, also at very low levels. All of these PFAS were found at levels lower than the state’s reporting limits. These new detection methods allow us to detect PFAS at parts per trillion – one drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool.

We will continue to voluntarily, proactively monitor for PFAS and help our member agencies respond to this emerging water quality issue.

The key thing is how we can make sure that that water impacted by PFAS is treated. A lot of our member agencies had to shut down some of their wells to go on imported water. If you are an agency that relies on groundwater and all of a sudden you have to shut your wells and go on imported water, it takes more water now to serve. Second is the sticker shock. It's more expensive. In Orange County, the cost of groundwater is half the price of imported water.

Metropolitan is there as a backstop. The federal and state government can really help on that effort. I’m proud of how the Orange County Water District stepped up and provided capital funding for many of the cities in Orange County that relied on groundwater.

You long have prioritized “resiliency.” Address your rationale for hiring Liz Crosson as your new Chief Sustainability, Resiliency, and Innovation Officer?

I'm so proud of having Liz join the team. Liz comes with great credentials. She is joining just as we’ve finalized our Climate Action plan and can lead its implementation. The Climate Action Plan is really responsive to our future water resiliency. It challenges us to see how we can reduce our carbon footprint and go carbon neutral by 2045? How can we create revenue through renewable energy creation? I want the work of Met to be looked at through the lens of resiliency, sustainability, and innovation. I couldn't ask for anyone better.

She's going to build relationships. She's going to open our eyes to programs, not only in water, but also renewable energy, water loss, and reducing our carbon footprint. Every action we do here will be looked at through this lens to make sure we're adapting to the future of climate change. Climate change’s impact to water is here. I want to be on the frontlines of fighting it and preventing it from getting worse.

Lastly, Adel, you've been for more than a decade a champion and participant in VerdeXchange’s annual Marketmakers Conference, VX water charettes and panels. Share what might best be addressed at VX2022 by water managers that will be brought together under that platform in June.

I'm glad we're going to be doing it in June and look forward to being part of this water charette. We're going to basically sit down at a table to imagine and reinvent the way we're going to manage water for the future. It’s creating that new playbook. I want people there writing and drawing the plays for us to get us where we want to be.

The way we're going to do it is be anchored in bringing people together. It's about holistic solutions, adapting to the changing climate, and doing it in a way that we all can come together.

I'm going to come in with an open mind, asking for ideas about how we reinvent ourselves. What made us great are the water aqueducts that brought in water from different places the last 100 years. Through the charette, we are going to develop the fourth aqueduct, which is not a pipeline, but rather different ideas to bring people together to make us resilient for the future.

“The key word that we have to all be embracing is resilience. Resiliency is how can we ensure that everyone has access to clean and reliable water supplies.” -Adel Hagekhalil, Metropolitan Water District